Given that this movie stars Kick-Ass's Aaron Johnson, is directed by a conceptual artist and is about one of the biggest rock icons in the world, you'd think Nowhere Boy would be a much more interesting film than it is. Not that I was expecting bloody brawls, creative editing or overtly shocking behavior, but this portrait of John Lennon as a young man is mostly a tame period piece about a boy in 1950s England who wants to be Elvis Presley. At no point do we get the impression that Lennon is particularly special at all -- just lucky and very, very determined. And while his upbringing was certainly nontraditional, it's hardly as shocking or controversial as the movie seems to want us to think it is.
Apparently, as a boy, John Lennon was raised by his aunt and uncle. A woman whom everyone in the family seems to know is his mother shows up occasionally, like for the funeral of his uncle, who died when John was a teen, but John would never talk to her. Until the day he seeks her out, and finds out that she has two daughters, a husband, and loves loves loves rock and roll. After she shows him an Elvis film reel and plays him a few songs, Lennon becomes a full-fledged greaser, convinces his aunt to buy him a guitar, and starts his own band, the Quarrymen. The rest is, of course history, and the movie tells us some of that story before its climax, in which John finds out the true story of why his mother gave him up and how he came to be living in such a loving household, where the meanest thing that ever happened to him was that his aunt made him wear his glasses in public.
The drama is very much of the "I'm a teenager, so this stuff is very important to me" variety. I can't imagine what it's like not to know your own parents, but it's not like he was living with strangers, or on the streets. (Although it's not clear if he rode on the rooftops of double-decker buses out of necessity or just for kicks.) He steals some records, fingers a girl or two and gets suspended from school for showing another girl his Pink Submarine, but he rarely fights, and he never pulls a knife on anybody, like some of the slicked-back rock devotees in town do to him. There is an unnaturally close relationship with his youngish mother to consider, but perceptions of some sort of attraction to him on her part could also be interpreted as genuine affection and making up for lost time. (Just don't think about how 20-year-old Johnson is dating the film's 43-year-old director and you'll be okay.)
Johnson comes across as a bit too muscular to be a young John Lennon, but once they get his hair up into a pompadour and you get used to the liberal application of Lennon's trademark nasal voice, you start to accept him in the role. You similarly have to laugh when you first see Thomas Brodie Sangster, the drummer kid from Love, Actually, as the young Paul McCartney, but he underplays the part nicely. Arguably the best thing about the movie is Kristin Scott Thomas as Lennon's aunt, who is a simmering pot of restrained love and support, and Anne-Marie Duff is almost as good as Lennon's possibly bipolar mother. But if you were looking for something more than an adequate prequel to Backbeat, it's only gonna let you down.
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